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Critical Reception: EA Canada's  Fight Night Champion
Critical Reception: EA Canada's Fight Night Champion
March 2, 2011 | By Danny Cowan

March 2, 2011 | By Danny Cowan
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This week's edition of Critical Reception examines online reactions to EA's boxing franchise sequel Fight Night Champion, which reviews describe as "more than your usual collection of modest EA Sports improvements." Fight Night Champion currently earns a score of 85 out of 100 at Metacritic.com.

Game Informer's Matthew Kato scores Champion at 9 out of 10. "I suspect that although most people don't consider themselves boxing fans, the sport resonates with us because it's been delivered successfully via a story," he begins. "Therefore, the Fight Night franchise is the perfect place to do something gamers have wanted for years create more drama in sports games.

"Champion mode's tale of Andre Bishop and the characters that surround him is an excellent blend of gameplay and writing, with each one complementing the other to produce a step forward for the genre."

Kato is impressed with how well Champion handles its new story elements. "The voice actors convey the story well, and their characters are rendered with enough detail and subtlety to convey emotion and drama," he praises.

"For a video game to deliver on all these fronts is a minor miracle by itself, but part of what helps the mode work so well is that it's not just a string of regular matches bookended by cutscenes."

Kato continues: "EA Canada tweaks gameplay perimeters of certain bouts in Champion mode to mix things up. Sometimes your goal is only to survive for a few rounds, or maybe you have to KO an opponent instead of winning by decision.

"The reasons behind these staged situations vary. Sometimes it's to teach you about the gameplay, but usually it's to serve the arc of the story whose flashbacks, colorful characters, and occasional surprises work well because they are handled deftly enough to be believable within the story as well as the gameplay."

Fight Night's core gameplay has also been given an upgrade, with mixed results. "EA streamlined the controls for punches, dodges, and blocks without compromising the game's overall strategy which now takes stamina into account better," Kato notes.

"Although your control inputs are often faithfully replicated onscreen, I am surprised how many times weaker miss-hits (where a boxer's arm wouldn't fully extend) register as powerful punches capable of knocking someone out. I can't figure out the rhyme or reason behind the flash knockout system either, but the excellent degenerative defensive system is a solid improvement."

"With online gyms comprised of your friends, smart gameplay changes, and improvements to Legacy mode, Fight Night Champion is more than your usual collection of modest EA Sports improvements," Kato writes. "Some areas shine brighter than others, but the developer's inspired Champion mode is the star feature that must be experienced."

Mike Phillips at 1UP.com gives Champion a B+ grade. "Who's your all-time favorite protagonist in a sports videogame?" he asks. "It's a ridiculous question, isn't it? Or rather, it was a ridiculous question before Fight Night Champion. Thanks to EA's new Champion Mode, I can now confidently bestow that honor on Andre Bishop."

"Champion Mode [is] where you assume the role of young Andre as he emerges from the amateur boxing ranks, endures some considerable personal turmoil, and brawls his way back for a shot at the title -- and redemption," Phillips explains.

"If that sounds a little too much like the plot of a popular movie series, that's because Champion Mode essentially is an interactive Rocky movie; the only things missing are a chicken-chasing minigame and a music-soaked sprint up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art."

The result gives Champion a unique charm. "Even though it's a big bag of cliches (from the grizzled old trainer, to the corrupt fight promoter, to the sculpted, superhuman, villainous champion), it all works in creating something that sports games have always struggled to provide: atmosphere," Phillips notes.

"Certainly other sports games have put forth token efforts in creating a 'story' mode for their titles: NBA 09: The Inside, Blitz: The League II, and Don King Presents: Prizefighter each took a slightly different approach to infusing some narrative flair into their games (with mostly awful results). But they never possessed the kind of focus and production value that EA has brought to bear in Fight Night Champion."

Phillips finds the new control scheme to be inaccurate at key moments, however. "Rather than winding up your punches, as was the case in [Fight Night] Round 4, the analog punches in Fight Night Champion require only a flick in a single direction to take a swing," he says.

"This reduces the margin for error when trying to deliver a certain type of swing, but it can also result in queuing up too many punches, sending your fighter lunging forward with a flurry and leaving him exposed when you'd only intended to throw a single poke at your opponent.

"At first, the controls are disconcerting and can leave you feeling like you're only partially in control of your boxer. It's therefore important to learn the very specific and deliberate rhythm of the fighting in Fight Night Champion. Bobbing and weaving and timing your shots are all crucial to success in the ring, and it feels good once you've got the hang of it. But in the heat of battle, it's altogether too easy to accidentally unleash an extra punch or two and end up paying the price."

The returning Legacy Mode also has its share of flaws. "Guiding your fighter through his career is done via an all-too-familiar series of calendar pages, emails, and pop-up windows with messages like: 'Would you like to appear on a podcast with some of your fans to gain a boost in popularity?'" Phillips describes.

"It's addictive in its own way -- leveling up your character, winning titles, and attempting to craft your own legacy -- but it all feels somewhat perfunctory in the face of what you've played in Champion Mode. It lacks, well, punch.

"Therein lies the paradox of Fight Night Champion: it both points the way forward for sports gaming with a smart, surprising new approach to the genre, and serves to remind us of the tired conventions that make that new direction necessary in the first place."

Eurogamer's Matt Edwards rates Champion at 8 out of 10. "[Fight Night Round 4 featured] Total Punch Control, a system that used circular motions on the right stick to convey the bread-and-butter of boxing ballistics," he notes.

"While this was technically sound, there were many who disliked the strict recognition that would often turn a well-timed hook into an unplanned uppercut -- which, if you'd spaced for the former, could leave you wide open for a galling counterpunch."

"Champion's more elegant solution is the revamped Full Spectrum Punch Control," Edwards continues. "For those who dislike the idea of using the analogue stick, Champion's default set-up has the face buttons working in tandem, giving simultaneous access to the three standard punches.

"This means button-pushers lose out on the fancier thrusts and swings, but as a compromise that allows fighting game traditionalists to enjoy the boxing without diluting any of the analogue sophistication, it works well and is unobtrusive."

A variety of gameplay tweaks improve Champion's pacing. "When you combine all these revisions with a faster tempo and more fluid animations, Champion's combat feels more faithful to the sport," Edwards states.

"You have to make use of your fighter's strengths as an inside brawler, outside sniper or conventional all-rounder. You have to manage your stamina effectively so that you apply consistent pressure, but not to the point where you have no stamina left if the fight goes the distance. And you have to mix up your strikes by landing combinations on both the body and head. With perseverance, Champion comes into its own and you'll come to understand and appreciate its many improvements over Round 4."

"EA Canada has also been busy with the new Champion Mode," Edwards says. "It's not going to win any literary awards -- all the characters fit into stereotypes like jealous brother, corrupt boxing promoter, old-fashioned trainer wearing a flat cap -- but the five-to-seven hours it offers are oddly compelling. It also helps that Bishop is genuinely likeable and by the second half of the story, you'll savour the moment when he falcon-punches the cocky smile off the arrogant heel's face."

"Despite its dominance, EA Canada has deflected any 'lazy update' accusations by listening to fan feedback and crafting a game that improves upon its predecessor," Edwards concludes. "It's far from a revolution -- much of the framework will be familiar to Fight Night fans -- but as the best-looking and most technically accomplished game the series has yet produced, this evolution exceeds our expectations, without totally blowing us away.

"Fight Night Champion has both the guts and the glory, and if the online functionality compliments the excellent offline modes, then it's going straight to the top."


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